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  • Writer's pictureDonald V. Watkins

Dr. Lucius H. Pitts: The Man Who Desegregated the University of Alabama's Law School

Updated: Aug 17, 2023

By: Donald V. Watkins

March 4, 2023

IMAGE: Dr. Lucius Pitts, president of Miles College Birmingham, Alabama from 1961 to 1971.

The man who desegregated the University of Alabama (UA) School of Law was Dr. Lucius H. Pitts, Sr. In the Spring of 1969 and Summer of 1970, Dr. Pitts recruited the black college students who would enter UA as freshman law students in the fall of 1969 and 1970.

To be clear, no University of Alabama official ever tried to recruit a black student to the law school in 1969 or 1970. UA's recruitment of black students did not start until Thomas Christopher became dean of the law school in 1971.

Dr. Pitts, who was president of Miles College from 1961 to 1971, personally recruited Michael Figures at Stillman College (Tuscaloosa), Booker T. Forte at the University of Alabama (Tuscaloosa), Ronald Jackson at Miles (Birmingham) to desegregate UA's law school in 1969. He also arranged scholarships for each of these law students.

Dr. Pitts also recruited George Jones, another Miles College student, and me to attend the law school in the fall of 1970. Dr. Pitts also arranged scholarships for each of us.

IMAGE: Donald Watkins (left) and George Jones (right) talking to a white law student.

I attended Southern Illinois University from 1966 to 1970. I was going to attend Howard University’s law school and had moved to Washington to do so.

My father, Dr. Levi Watkins, was president of Alabama State University from 1962 to 1981. Dr. Pitts and my father were very close friends. Both men had gotten their colleges accredited in the 1960s. My father got ASU accredited in 1966. Dr. Pitts got Miles College accredited in 1969. They had tremendous respect for each other.

In the Summer of 1970, Dr. Pitts persuaded my father to encourage me to join Michael. Figures, Booker Forte, Ronald Jackson, and George Jones in desegregating UA’s law school, which my father did.

My father sent for me to fly home from Washington one summer day. When I arrived at ASU's president's mansion, Dr. Pitts was there with my mother and father. Dr. Pitts explained the importance of: (a) desegregating the law school, (b) passing the Bar exam on the first attempt, and (c) using law to restructure the social, educational, economic, and political landscape of Alabama. He impressed upon me that failure in this mission was NOT an option.

After we talked, I understood Dr. Pitts' dedication to civil rights and the mission he was asking me to undertake at UA’s law school. I agreed to undertake that mission. Within a matter of days, I switched from Howard University to UA’s law school.

I attended the three-year UA law school program on a Herbert Lehman Scholarship awarded by the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund in New York City that had been arranged by Dr. Pitts. Lehman Scholarships were awarded to African-American students in the early 1970s who demonstrated an interest in advancing the cause of civil rights and/or serving the public interest.

We did not know it at the time, but Dr. Lucius Pitts had also placed us under the watch-care and tutelage of Mr. Ramus Rhodes, the black custodian at the law school. Mr. Rhodes was a Stillman College graduate with a teaching degree. After graduating from Stillman, Mr. Rhodes could not find a teaching position in Tuscaloosa's "colored" schools. As such, Mr. Rhodes worked as a janitor at the law school for decades to financial support his family.

In law school, Mr. Rhodes was our real “professor.” Mr. Rhodes loved us, and he made the difference between our success or failure. We are literally “Rhodes Scholars.”

Dr. Pitts Had a Lifelong Committed to Education and Civil Rights

After working as head of a private high school in Cordele, Georgia in the 1940s, Dr. Pitts became the executive secretary of the Georgia Teachers and Education Association in the 1950s, representing 11,000 black teachers.

In 1961, Dr. Pitts was appointed president of Miles College. He led the college to a doubling of enrollment and a tenfold increase in its annual operating budget. Dr. Pitts recruited alumnus Dr. Richard Arrington Jr to return to Miles as acting dean and director of the college's summer school. He quickly promoted Dr. Arrington to chair the Natural Sciences Department. Dr. Arrington went on to become the first black mayor of Birmingham in 1979.

In 1970, Dr. Pitts brought national attention to Miles College when he convinced Harvard dean John Munro to leave Cambridge for Birmingham to serve as Miles' director of freshman studies.

Dr. Pitts left Miles to accept the presidency of Paine College in 1971. He died in his office at age 59.

Dr. Pitts served on the board of the Southern Regional Council in Atlanta, and on a Commission on Cooperation and Council between The United Methodist and The Christian Methodist Episcopal Churches.

Dr. Pitts was a staunch advocate for civil rights and he never stopped fighting for it. He was a real man with unbelievable courage.

During Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s 1963 Birmingham Campaign, Dr. Pitts was a member of the Central Committee that planned the Campaign. He also organized the Salute to Freedom '63 concert at Miles to raise funds for the planned "March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom." Dr. Pitts was later elected co-chair of the Community Affairs Committee for Operation New Birmingham, tasked with improving race relations following the Birmingham Truce.

In my book, Dr. Pitts is a civil rights icon who deserves to have his story told and who is entitled to take his rightful place in the annals of American history.


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